Phil and Di Stone live in and lead the Scargill Community in Yorkshire, “a resident community of many Christian traditions, committed to a common rule of life and service”. The community, which is part of the Scargill Movement runs a Christian holiday, conference and retreat centre. Phil talks to James Stacey, a leader in the Jesus Army.
Phil, it’s a beautiful part of the world, here in the Yorkshire Dales! How many people live as part of the Scargill community?
About thirty of us. A mixture of nationalities and from all types of church backgrounds. One of our chaplains is an ordained Baptist, a Vineyard pastor, and was brought up as a Lutheran! And we have people from Kenya, Ghana, Germany, Sweden, Zambia and Hungary.
So how do people find out about Scargill?
It’s a mixture of word of mouth and the website. And some hear of us through Lee Abbey.
Adrian Plass is part of the Scargill Movement and community?
He uses his fame for us wonderfully! Also, sometimes we do what I call “Scargill on tour”. We love Greenbelt, for instance, and we also market what we’re doing at the Christian Resources Exhibition, sometimes at Spring Harvest, sometimes at New Wine.
What’s the routine here in the Scargill community? You have a lot going on?
Most weeks are divided into two slots: Monday to Friday, Friday to Sunday. We have guests in those slots coming to all sorts of activities from retreats to gardening to family events. Tuesday is our community day: an afternoon and evening meeting just for community members.
Every day we have morning prayers, which everyone is invited to, followed by breakfast, then whatever’s happening that day. There are prayers after lunch, an evening meal, then usually an evening activity or something going on. Guests go home Friday morning – a new lot arrive later! So the ‘fuzzy’ days for the community – for getting the place ready – are Mondays and Fridays.
And your community residents live in a cluster of houses and cottages down the hill from your main house and conference centre. When do they get time off to chill out?
Every person has a day off a week and then people have an extra day off a month. Then on Sunday afternoons we hope that everyone will be out of the house by about 3ish. So we have that as a sort of shorter day, with a recreational afternoon. Community members do quite a bit together: some might go for a walk, some may play football, others may have a singing session, that sort of thing.
Sunday evenings we might watch a silly programme together. Di and I are “Great British Bake Off” fans (it’s not everybody’s cup of tea – or cake!) Last Wednesday evening, after we’d done our entertaining at the house, about h
alf a dozen people came here and watched the “Bake Off” with us.
What’s the history of Scargill?
There is a Christian community called Lee Abbey in North Devon. That started just after the Second World War. By the fifties, people from up north were exhausted going back and forth to Lee Abbey. They said “Why can’t we have something like that up here?” So Donald Coggan and others prayed about it and Scargill was born in 1959. In 2008, for all sorts of reasons, it shut. It looked like it was the end for Scargill.
Di and I had been involved with Lee Abbey for many years, running their youth camps. At the beginning of 2008 we were wondering what to do next. We had been in parish ministry for 13 years in London. The warden’s job at the Abbey came up. We were encouraged to apply. We felt it was right, too, so we went for it – and we didn’t get it! It was a real shock!
At that time, Scargill came up for sale. We thought, “I wonder if Scargill would be the place for us?” We came up here, with Adrian and Bridget Plass and stayed in a cottage in the local village. We came into Scargill; it was all empty. We prayed around the place, wandered into the walled garden. “God, is this the place You want us to be?”
At that point it could have become a hotel or anything. In the meantime, God was dealing with the buying of the place! So in 2009, when the keys were handed over to the new Scargill movement, we came up for that – and it was great! We were still wondering if this was the place for us – but the rest is history. We advertised for some crazy people to start this new adventure and then we went for it. Here we are, six years on.
So you and Di, and Bridget and Adrian Plass, were part of the community at its new beginning?
We were the community! And another couple – it was all a bit messy at the beginning, like you would expect.
Your members come for a period of time, then move on? So your community is completely different every few years?
Yeah, probably about 50 per cent change each year.
I guess that has pros and cons in the same way as a community where people stay for decades or for life has its pros and cons?
There’s a freshness. New folks coming in makes it inherently an uncomfortable place – which is a positive; not just dull routine and pattern, but constantly moving on and adapting.
Do you ever get people who come for a year, but then at the end of the year, don’t want to go?
Yeah, quite a high percentage at the moment. And as well as the residential community, there’s the non-residential community. They live locally yet are full community members. And there’s the volunteer community. Volunteers come very regularly, from all over the country.
We were talking to someone today and he said that they found it quite difficult to distinguish between community, volunteer and guest. I like that. I think that’s how it should be.
What drawbacks are there in having a transient population?
It can be very painful saying goodbyes. We just experienced a very painful time. Our chaplain had been here for four years. She left just over two weeks ago. She’s been very important in creating the DNA of the place. The day she left was the day our new chaplain and husband arrived. We were in tears saying goodbye to her after lunch, and then the new couple are here, and we’re having a glass of wine saying, “Welcome!” – and I thought, “This is weird.”
What are your influences on your community life?
Jean Vanier’s book, “Community and Growth” is the community text book I always go back to. I’m often quoting Jean Vanier. Also Henri Nouwen. And places like Lee Abbey, the Northumbria Community and the Monastero di Bose in North Italy, which is an ecumenical monastic community of men and women. Four of us are going there very soon for a retreat. There are about eighty people there and the average age is forty – so it’s a vibrant, young community. It’s a lively and beautiful place.
Community is always a place of fragility, which finds its strength in God.
The summer we re-started Scargill, Di and I visited Bose. We came away with three words: “simplicity, beauty and quality”. In our life together, we want those three words to be a sort of benchmark of about what we’re about. A place that’s got simplicity about it can be very beautiful. It allows you to enter into a special space. I think our Chapel is a simple place – but it’s beautiful, too.
It helped form your values?
Yes. We have a rule of life that we live by, which we call our “pathway”. It expresses our values.
Adrian says – I love this – that people are fed up with looking at the menu; they want to experience the real food. Too much Christianity is about reading the menu and not actually experiencing the food. One of our values here is a generous hospitality – real laughter, real care and love. That’s the real food, isn’t it?
You mentioned Adrian and Bridget Plass a few times. It seems to me that that’s quite a key friendship near the heart of what’s here?
We’ve been friends for many, many years. We go back a long way and have travelled a long way together.
Everything around this place is relational, which is about community, which is about the Trinity…
The early Fathers used to compare the life of the Trinity to a round dance, a dance that we’re invited into – a dance of love, generous giving, self-giving, mutuality, vulnerability, fragility.
Community is always going to be fragile. As we think we’re strong we’ve lost the plot. Community is always a place of fragility, which finds its strength in God.
How do you handle it when people fall out?
We try to sort things out informally; perhaps someone outside of the community might come over and chat with someone or something. If it’s more serious, then you have to deal with it seriously and follow a very similar set of procedures to people in an ordinary place of work. If someone was causing disruption, you would just have to be honest with them and say, “This is a place of work – and it’s not working for you.” Then try and support them in working it out.
You laugh a lot here, don’t you?
We have a laugh, yeah. It’s one of our promises!
Yeah: to laugh often.
What do you laugh at?
Oh, we laugh at each other! Laughter is not second cousin to being serious; it’s just as important as being serious. That’s one of the strengths of this community, the laughter. People comment on the love and the laughter.
What do you do about money?
Wish we had more of it! Those living and working in the community have an allowance…
From the income from people staying here?
Is there a fairly high degree of material sharing?
Some people have their own vehicles, not everybody does. We have a community car as well. Well, we did have a community car until a tractor drove into us! People are very generous in sharing their things.
The Scargill Movement’s slogan is “Lives shared, lives transformed”?
“Lives shared, lives transformed – with Jesus right at the heart”. Once we start living in community, all sorts of things come to the surface. People sometimes think you come to Scargill to escape – well, actually, you come to Scargill to do serious business with yourself and with God! Once you start living with people in community all the things that had been nicely forgotten, or buried deep, or stuck in the back of the wardrobe suddenly start to come out. As we live our lives together, God does sometimes a gentle work with us; sometimes it’s fairly vigorous work, knocking off sharp corners, making us more into our true selves.
Scargill’s been described as “a safe place to say dangerous things”.
It is a safe place where people can be who they are, because we don’t really have any hang-ups about churchmanship or where people are at theologically. If they’ve given up on God, or if they’re close to God, we just want to be God’s welcome and God’s love to people who come through the door.
It’s difficult to place Scargill on the theological spectrum…
…I thought you’d like that!
We want to be God’s welcome to those who come from outdoors.
On one of our programmed weekends, I was doing this breathing exercise – a prayer breathing exercise, breathing in “God delights in me” and breathing out “I delight in God”. One bloke said, “I’m not sure I can delight in God” and added all sorts of reasons why he couldn’t. I could have sat down with him and had a couple of hours’ debate with him about it. Instead, I said, “Why don’t you just talk to God about it this afternoon; just go somewhere and have a conversation with him?” We had a feedback session the next day, and he said “Phil suggested I go and have a conversation with God about what was going on in my life – and God turned up!” We don’t have to do anything, in one sense, but provide that safe space and that welcome, that acceptance.
What stops Scargill becoming theologically wishy-washy?
At the core we believe fundamentally in Jesus, the visible image of God. In Jesus, we see someone who brings life, liberation, changes lives, walks with people in their darkest moments. Through the Holy Spirit, His presence is here now, and can make a change in people’s lives. We have the gospel right at the heart of what we’re about – but we don’t go around firing John 3:16 from a holster!
That’s central, but the edges are fuzzy, so people can enter into it, be a part of it. They may not be able to articulate what they actually believe, but they’re being drawn; they find welcome, acceptance, love, belonging, home…
I notice you’ve got a Richard Dawkins book on the shelf just behind you. Presumably Richard Dawkins can come here and be on the fuzzy edges?
I am sure he can, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t! Next year, we’ve got a Bishop coming who is doing an apologetics weekend dealing with how Christian faith stacks up against intellectual challenges.
You’re not afraid of cut and thrust debate and thought.
No! Next year we want to run sessions on a Christian response to immigration. I am worried about what some Christians say about immigration, the sort of language I’m hearing. I want us to be on the cutting edge on that. We’ve done courses on “Jesus, good news to the poor: what does that mean for us?”
Two weeks ago we had a church from inner-city Liverpool here, it was just so really good to encourage them, to show them how much God loves them, but then to say, “Well, what does that mean? How are you going to be God’s love back in mainstream Liverpool?”
Sounds like you’re determined that your community life connects with real people in the real world?
Yes! The gospel is knowing that you’re deeply loved by God, and then living, and moving in that love, and making a change in people’s lives, and in communities. Exciting!
Thank you, Phil. You’re doing something very inspiring here!